Fr. Ed Kornath, pastor of St. John Vianney Parish in Brookfield, had some fun with the statues of his parish’s patron saint outside, ensuring that even the great saint complied with CDC guidelines. (Submitted photo)

For more than two months, the priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee have looked out on empty churches as they celebrate the Mass, preaching to iPhones and photographs of parishioners taped to the backs of pews, forced to imagine a congregation somewhere out there across the great digital divide.

But on Pentecost weekend, May 30 and 31, in the same way that the Apostles emerged from the Upper Room, so too did the Catholic lay community of southeastern Wisconsin come out from their place of hiding.

It was the first weekend of public Masses since the third Sunday in Lent, and many priests admit they looked forward to the return with a mix of excitement, joy and trepidation.

“It was a toss of the dice. We had no idea how many people would come,” said Fr. Edwin Kornath, pastor of St. John Vianney Parish in Brookfield. “My gut told me it was going to be a small crowd, at least for the next couple of weekends, because people are still afraid and skittish about big crowds. But my nightmare was to have this huge crowd of hundreds of people and then you’ve got to close the church and they’re angry.”

The Catholic Herald spoke with 10 priests representing parishes from across the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and each reported that the weekend went off without a hitch, surpassing their expectations in terms of smooth execution and safety for all involved.

“We were exceptionally pleased with how it went,” said Fr. Mark Danczyk, pastor at St. Francis de Sales in Lake Geneva and St. Benedict in Fontana. “It was absolutely wonderful.”

“Parishioners commented how safe they felt, how clean the church was, compared to even being in grocery stores and things like that,” said Fr. Todd Budde, pastor at St. Gregory the Great Parish in Milwaukee. “They said they felt safer (at Mass) than doing that.”

“I hope that more people will return in the future who may have been fearful of coming, because it went very smoothly, and I don’t think anyone was placed in any danger,” said Fr. Dwight Campbell, pastor at St. Therese and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parishes in Kenosha.

It was an emotional weekend not just for the faithful who were returning to the sacraments but for the priests themselves.

“For me, it was just powerful to give out Holy Communion, because those people hadn’t received for 12 weeks,” said Fr. Kornath. “Some people had tears in their eyes. It was a real sacred moment.”

“I joked with them and said, ‘Who would ever think that one day we would be celebrating the Mass this way, masks on and this and that — but even though you are wearing those masks, you look really, really good,’” said Fr. Yamid Blanco, pastor at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Mount Pleasant and St. Louis Parish in Caledonia.

For many, it was a blessed moment of community after such a long period of isolation.

“We have a strong tradition here of having a cafe with coffee and donuts, and that’s obviously on the shelf for the time being,” said Fr. Tom Brundage, pastor at St. Jerome Parish in Oconomowoc. “But it was a beautiful weekend and I just invited people to go outside if they wanted to talk to each other, and an awful lot of people did that and followed social distancing guidelines.”

“As much as we’re able to bring the Mass into their homes via digital technology, it’s not the same,” said Fr. John LoCoco, associate pastor at Holy Family Parish in Fond du Lac. “Our sacramental theology speaks of the importance of our corporeal participation.”

The “Catholic Comeback,” as it has been dubbed by the archdiocese, was the culmination of weeks of planning on the part of pastoral staff members and volunteers who had dozens of safety directives and guidelines with which to comply. Many parishes, like St. James in Mukwonago, assembled a steering committee and subcommittees to tackle individual issues.

The sheer dedication of time and talent was “so difficult to imagine,” said Fr. Amalraj. Trying to figure out how to work a hand sanitizing station into the Communion line was an hour-and-a-half discussion itself, he said.

“They did a phenomenal job. The lay leadership have so many skills, you just have to bring them together,” said Fr. Amalraj.

At Sheboygan South Side Catholic Parishes, staff produced a video illustrating details about arrival and departure, hand sanitation, seating, liturgical accommodations and reception of Communion. “We also had minister training sessions for ushers and greeters and lectors so they knew how to do everything. It was really multifaceted,” said Sheboygan South Side pastor Fr. Paul Fliss. “It was a huge undertaking.”

Most potential problems were ironed out in rehearsals that took place in the days before the weekend, where ushers, sacristans, church musicians and other volunteers helped their pastors to choreograph the movements of both the presider and the congregation in a way that would maximize efficiency and minimize interpersonal contact.

“We knew as soon as we had a Mass, we’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s a glaring thing that needs to change, that’s not as smooth as we wanted,’” said Fr. LoCoco. “For example, we didn’t want people walking down beside the pews because it kind of defeats the purpose of social distancing. You need to keep them in the center of the aisle — so, tape on the ground.”

The priests reported that attendance was generally lower than the temporary capacity of their churches (which was allowed to be 25 percent the building’s official capacity), and they feel that many people are hanging back to see how the first weekend or two goes before venturing out themselves.

“I’ve been super pleased with the response of people — they are taking all of the regulations to heart, and they have a spirit that’s not negative,” said Fr. Fliss of his parishioners. “They’re not grumpy. They’re wanting to come back as a community and they’re willing to do whatever they need to do to enable that.”